BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD – Carter Burwell
Original Review by Clark Douglas
2007 has seemed like a bit of a dismal year at the movies for most of it’s duration, but during the final stretch, masterpieces continue to trickle in. One of the latest is director Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”, a non-linear crime story. If the name Sidney Lumet sounds familiar, it should… he’s been directing high-quality dramatic films for some fifty years now, a remarkable feat. If you’re any kind of movie fan, surely you’ve seen some of his work… “Twelve Angry Men”, “Serpico”, “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network” are among his achievements. However, his career was generally considered to be coming to a quiet close by many critics, as Lumet turned out decent but generally middling efforts like “Find Me Guilty”. The Academy Awards gave Lumet the Lifetime Achievement Award, speeches were made, and everyone moved on.
Everyone except Lumet, it seems. He has returned with a film that stands as a testament to what a man in his mid-80’s can accomplish artistically, one of the sharpest, most intelligent films of the director’s career. Lumet hasn’t grown soft in his old age; “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” may also very well be the bleakest film the director has ever made. One senses a pattern in the director’s great films… observe the hopeful optimism of “Twelve Angry Men”, the cynical optimism of “Serpico”, and the cynical despair of “Dog Day Afternoon”, “Network”, and “The Verdict”. Lumet takes the next step with this film, moving into territory that is best described as “unforgiving”. Indeed, the title of the film comes from a quote that reflects Lumet’s tone… “May you spend a half hour in heaven before the Devil knows you’re dead.”
The less you know about the plot of this film, the better it will be. To put it simply and completely free of spoilers, this is the story of a crime. We witness an armed robbery that results in death, we witness the events that led up to the robbery, and we witness the aftermath of the robbery. The robbery is planned and committed by two brothers. The older brother is Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a slick and smart businessman with a lot of personal troubles. The younger brother is Hank (Ethan Hawke), a scruffy underachiever who has a lot more hesitations about committing a crime than his brother does.
There are a lot of revelations and surprises over the course of the film, and Lumet moves back and forth in time with masterful precision, adding in puzzle pieces as the big picture slowly starts to move into focus. Once we have finished unraveling all the information involving the planning of the crime, the committing of the crime, and the results of the crime, Lumet takes us firmly through a punishing and frightening series of concluding moments. The movie has something in common with a couple of other great films from 2007, “Atonement” and “No Country for Old Men”, in that it quite magnificently offers a morality play on the consequences of committing a seemingly simple and harmless sin.
Also in common with those two films, this one features some great performances. I should begin with Philip Seymour Hoffman, that brilliant actor who continues to amaze me time after time. He hasn’t become lazy in his post-Oscar days, and he continues to have a remarkable ability to pick interesting roles in strong scripts being filmed by ambitious directors. All of Hoffman’s performances this year have been superb, but I think this one may be his very best, as he takes this character on a difficult emotional journey. Ethan Hawke is solid in the role of Hank, but his character takes something of a back seat to Andy. Marisa Tomei plays a woman who is involved in the lives of both brothers, serving as wife for one and lover for the other. Albert Finney is tremendous in a supporting role as Hank and Andy’s father… he has some strong scenes with Hoffman, including a dialogue scene in which he seems to be drawing upon every last ounce of his will and strength to get a particular collection of words to come out of his mouth.
Carter Burwell’s music is a noteworthy element of the film, partially because Lumet is famous for leaving so many of his films unscored or featuring minimal score. Lumet reportedly said to Burwell, “this is a melodrama and I want a lot of score!” Burwell provides “a lot of score”, at least in comparison to what is offered in other Lumet films. There are two primary ideas here, both of them quite solid. A descending figure (performed by a small orchestra) is backed up by Burwell’s trademark low piano rumbling during the crime-related scenes, offering a certain urgency and danger to the proceedings. Even better is the score’s main theme, often performed by an acoustic guitar, a very sad and moving piece that suggests what could have been “if only”. The music will sound very familiar to those who know Burwell’s work. I become increasingly convinced over time that Burwell works in a manner quite similar to James Horner; coloring all the films he scores from the same vast collection of ideas and providing whatever variations the story requires. The music here may not seem terribly original, but it is very effective, and supports many scenes quite strongly.
If you’re looking for an exciting, action-packed crime thriller, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is not the right place to turn. This is a dark and emotionally punishing movie that offers the viewer a tragedy of near-Shakespearean proportions. However, in it’s own twisted way, the film is a comforting one. You may leave the theater a little bit shaken and more than a little bit depressed, but if you’re anything like me, you may also breathe a sigh of relief that your life is not in the same situation. Do you need to be convinced that committing a crime doesn’t pay? Forget McGruff the Crime Dog, toss out those phony public service announcements… there’s no better argument for simply being content with your boring old nine-to-five job than “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”. One of the year’s best films.
- Not Available
- Four cues from Burwell’s score – “Before The Devil Knows”, “Andy Doesn’t Add Up”. “Love’s Hospital Bed” and “Father’s Last Resort” – can be heard at his website, The Body, at this link
Music composed and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Carter Burwell. Recorded and mixed by Mike Farrow. Score produced by Carter Burwell.